This morning’s Gospel text may be one of the most practical and applicable passages in the whole Bible. It’s not a complicated parable with many layers of meaning. It’s not an apocalyptic saying with mysterious symbolic language. It’s not a poem, or a prophecy, or even a commandment from long ago that makes us work hard to figure out how to apply it to our contemporary lives.
This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is instead a very practical set of instructions from Jesus for what to do when conflict arises. You see, Jesus’ disciples and the people they met along their missionary journeys experienced conflict. There’s even a Gospel story about Jesus’ disciples arguing with one another as they went along the road – arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest.
Jesus’ first disciples got into conflict sometimes, and even Jesus got into conflict. I imagine that most of the time Jesus probably kept his cool when conflict arose – when the Pharisees tried to trick him or test him, when his disciples didn’t understand him or even tried to oppose him. There’s even one story in which Jesus does get angry and he shows it – he drives the money changers out of the temple, knocking over their tables, sending birds and coins scattering, and people running at the sound of his authoritative voice.
But you, good Christian people, you don’t experience conflict, do you? You always get along well with your family members and with your friends. Everything is smooth sailing at work when you’re involved, isn’t it? And in the church… how could we possibly have any disagreements or fights within the church?
We all know that conflict occurs almost everywhere… wherever human beings live, work, play, serve, and even worship together, conflict is a reality at times. For example, in the last twenty years or so, many churches have started to use contemporary praise and worship music in their services. And while some members have embraced the worship bands, guitars, and drums, others have preferred to stick with traditional hymns, and organs or pianos. In communities where the congregation was split on the issue, people started to refer to what was happening as “worship wars.” The conflict over instrumentation or style of music was so deep and dividing that they started calling it a war.
Of course, conflict in the church is not a new phenomenon. A few hundred years before we started arguing about worship bands replacing organs, we were arguing about organs replacing a cappella singing. We’ve argued over theological and doctrinal positions. We’ve argued about church practices and policies. We’ve argued about things as important as whether to spend our money to help our own church or to advance a mission. And we’ve argued about things as trivial as the colour of the carpet.
Now, to be fair, arguing – or debating, to put it a little more positively – is not necessarily the same thing as being in conflict, fighting, or being at war. Our Presbyterian church order, perhaps more than any other church structure, is built on the idea that church members, elders, and ministers will not always agree with one another.
Almost everything we do is structured in such a way that we need to work out a way together in spite of our great diversity of experience, preference, and opinion. Although the minister is ultimately responsible for the content of worship, almost everything else we do from church programs, to financial decisions, to mission projects is worked out by the Session of elders working with its committees, in partnership with the Board of Managers. And when significant decisions are made – like the annual budget, calling a minister, creating new staff positions, or other major decisions – congregational meetings are called so that we can make those decisions together.
The Presbyterian way of making decisions involves more than one person in the process. We believe that when we ask God to guide and direct us, and when we engage in an open, honest, and respectful debate, that together, and under the Spirit’s guidance, we will discover God’s will for us.
Of course we’re human, so it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes we leave church meetings feeling frustrated or disappointed because we didn’t agree with a decision. But much of the time, whether at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Synod of Saskatchewan, or the Session of St. Andrew’s, when motions are made, and members engage in debate, speaking for or against a particular motion, we either come to agreement or at least finish the meeting as friends who disagree on a few things, but understand each other a little better.
Using our church polity and decision-making process correctly is one way that we can avoid negative conflict in the church. Whether it’s related to the work of a committee, a group, or the Session itself, we can choose to engage in respectful debate. We can disagree with a particular motion or proposal, honestly sharing our reasons in the discussion instead of talking with our friends after the meeting, whispering behind people’s backs, or forming alliances to force our own way. And once a decision is made, even if we didn’t agree with it completely, we can choose to move forward together, trusting that the Holy Spirit may yet be leading the church.
If you’re fairly new to the Presbyterian church, you may not have heard of this book we have called the “Book of Forms.” It’s a guide book for how we do things in our church, how we make decisions at the congregational level, as well as in the wider church. It’s not an old document, written many years ago, but it is an ever-changing set of guidelines which is updated and amended almost every year to deal with new problems and situations.
A significant chapter in the Book of Forms is all about discipline. It’s about what to do and how to handle situations of conflict or misconduct that arise from time to time within our congregations. But the section on discipline begins with these words: “Not all conflict in the church needs to result in judicial process. Members and office-bearers must attempt to resolve differences prior to resorting to judicial process.” And then there is a scripture reference to the Gospel of Matthew 18:15-17… some of the verses we read this morning.
What I think is so interesting about this passage is that it presumes that conflict will arise at times. There is no suggestion that “good Christians” will always be happy and always get along. There is no expectation that Christians should put up with being treated badly by others in the community, and just “suck it up” because they are good Christians. But instead of steaming about it, and instead of gossiping or complaining to others about the issue, Jesus tells us that we’ve got to start talking about it.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together.” Talk to the person directly. Don’t hold it in until you burst with anger and frustration, but while you’re still level headed tell them what they did or didn’t do and how it affected you.
I know… that’s a lot easier said than done. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage, and sometimes it takes a fair amount of persistence. But most of the time (at least, in my experience) conflicts can be sorted out by talking. Maybe you misunderstood what the person said and thought it was an insult. Sometimes the person just wasn’t paying attention, didn’t intend to hurt you, and wants to mend the relationship. Most of the time, it’s just a matter of communicating carefully and taking the time to listen.
As I speak about this, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you are thinking about a conflict you’ve experienced in your own life. You may be analyzing how successful or unsuccessful you were at working it out. You may be considering how to approach a relationship in your life right now. Will you get up the courage to ask for a conversation? Will you accept an invitation to talk if someone in your life wants to work something out with you? I hope you will.
Both Jesus and the Book of Forms tell you that you should go directly to the person first. Then, if they won’t listen, take two or three others with you as witnesses. Then, if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, Jesus says that we should treat them as we would a Gentile or a tax collector.
It would be nice if every time we got up the courage to go and talk to someone about a problem or conflict we could work it out. And it would be helpful if every time there was a serious conflict in a congregation or presbytery, the formal process in the Book of Forms would be successful in resolving it. But sometimes it just doesn’t work that well, and we don’t have the skills, or perhaps the real willingness of all the parties to figure it out. So Jesus says that if they won’t pay attention even to the church, that we should treat them as we would a Gentile or a tax collector. Interesting.
So, does that mean we should revile them, or shun them, or simply ignore them? Since this is Jesus speaking, I’m inclined to think not. When there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to work out a conflict or reconcile a relationship, we should try to treat the person like Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors… with more respect than others afforded them, with more kindness than people thought they deserved, with more forgiveness than anyone thought was reasonable to expect.
Jesus never said that following him and his way was going to be easy, did he? But like he did in another place in the Gospels when he was talking about the power the disciples would get to forgive sins, in today’s passage he assures his friends as he assures us also, “that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” We have the power to get stuck up in our conflicts and disagreements and even our petty squabbles, and also we have the power to let them go, to forgive each other, and go on, even when forgiveness is not earned or deserved. The choice is ours to make.
As we begin something of a new year today, in our church, in our schools, in our workplaces and families… let’s pray that God will help us to find much agreement and to live and work in peace and harmony. But when we do find ourselves disagreeing, or when issues arise that need working out, let’s remember Matthew 18. Talk to the person, bring witnesses, ask for the help of the church. And if nothing can be done to solve it, don’t let it drag you into continuing conflict and bad feelings – instead, forgive as Jesus forgave.
And let us remember this year, that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name – whether in worship, in committee meetings, in service or in fellowship, Christ is with us. Thanks be to God.